Has the Big Tent Become a Pole Barn?

Many years ago, when I was first getting involved in politics, someone gave me a yellow rectangular card that rattled off a whole host of reasons of “Why I Was a Republican.”  There must have been at least 25 points, ranging from reducing the size and scope of government to respecting the right to life of the unborn.  That was in the early 80’s.  I was young, my political views were just taking shape, and (thank God) Ronald Reagan was our President.

Back then I was told that the Republican Party was like a big tent.  We welcomed everyone in from all walks of life, backgrounds, and professions.  I was also informed, however, that there are certain core beliefs that unite us all, and if you’re going to be in the tent, you must subscribe to those basic principles.  Fair enough, I thought.

Those principles were described to me as similar to the tent’s poles–mighty wooden poles, such as those at a circus.  There are several main poles lining the center, where everyone rallies.  They are generally made from the strongest timber, allowing them to uphold tremendous weight, and making them very valuable.  You wouldn’t get just any old piece of wood to serve as your centerpiece.  You’d get something strong, long-lasting, powerful–something that stands in the center for people to gather around.  The smaller poles around the perimeter supplement and strengthen the main poles.  The ropes, too, help reinforce the tent’s strength and shape.  They all work together towards a common goal and mission.

Before long I realized that if the smaller poles were too large or too small, or shaped differently, they might do more to weaken the tent instead of strengthen it.  If the ropes were feeble, the tent would have problems standing as well, especially during turbulent times.  Each item has to fit in & work together towards a greater purpose.

At that moment I began to understand the underpinnings of coalition politics.  All those little poles and ropes are like various groups championing similar issues that all fall on the same side of the political spectrum (in this case the Right).  But they are–they must be–secondary.  If a group’s issue isn’t congruent with the main “principle” poles, then it just won’t fit in–and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Now fast forward to the present.  I have purposefully not delved into a policy debate about the current positions of the Republican Party.  Many have written extensively about how the GOP platform continues to get watered down and sprinkled with the trampled salt of ambiguity.  Some have even suggested that a candidate’s adherence to the platform should be optional.  Troubling indeed.

Nevertheless, I do believe that it is quite acceptable and wholly appropriate for some policy positions to expire and evolve over time–especially ones rooted in technology, geopolitics, and the challenges of living in a modern society.  But there simply has to be a set of non-negotiable core values that serve as the backbone of the party.

In recent years, however, the GOP has been transforming itself from a “big tent” into what I would describe as a big “pole barn.”

A pole barn has a very simple & efficient structure.  It’s basically several poles ringing a rectangular perimeter supporting a roof supplemented with trusses.  It’s commoditized and can be built with few and easily obtained materials.  Its value lies in that it can be quickly built and hold a lot of people.  Serving warehouses, restaurants, social clubs, entertainment, and even churches, it’s a one-size-fits-all model that can be transformed into virtually anything.

That’s the point I’m driving at here.

The GOP has gradually moved away from being a grand, powerful “big tent,” consisting of many core components all working together towards a common belief system– something bigger than life itself, with ideas divinely inspired.  Gone are those mighty poles representing sacred and firmly held beliefs–the center poles around which hoards of people once rallied.

In fact, when you’re in a pole barn, there is generally nothing in the middle, except what you might temporarily place there.  When people fill it up, the supporting poles are seemingly insignificant and are hidden from view–normally ringing the side behind a veneer–out of sight and out of mind.  They keep the weather out and let people in–that’s all.

That is the danger today’s Republican Party faces as it transitions from a big tent into a pole barn.  Its goal is to allow as many people inside as possible.  Fielding candidates that can merely “win” is the order of the day.  They no longer have to be brand label; they’re commodities, bought in bulk and sold at a discount.

Commoditization is great in the free market.  But in party politics, it’s a death knell.  The GOP must maintain its common core values or it will continue to become merely Democrat-lite.  It cannot long stand for anything and everything without soon experiencing the consequences of standing for nothing.


Featured-Columnist---Brad-Beckett-1Brad Beckett is a political consultant living in Cincinnati, Ohio.  He has been working professionally in the public policy arena for nearly 18 years at both the local & state level.

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